How To Protect Rental Properties From Holiday Fire Disasters



The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) says the holidays are a time when fires, especially those resulting from cooking, are most likely. Thanksgiving is the peak day for home blazes, when fires are three times more likely than average to occur. Christmas Day and Christmas Eve are the second and third most active days for home fires.

That doesn’t bode especially well for apartments, which according to the latest from the NFPA are catching on fire more frequently since 2009. The numbers may be rising proportionately because inventories have grown in that time. Nonetheless, annual reported fires increased nearly nine percent to 98,000 in 2013 at a cost of $1.666 billion. The NFPA doesn’t specify the causes for apartment fires, but says that cooking has long been the leading cause of home structure fires and home fire injuries.

Fires usually originate on cooking equipment but hidden hazards exist

Fat, grease, cooking oil and related substances are typically contributors to kitchen disasters on holidays, mostly on cooking equipment. Most home structure fires involving cooking equipment begin with the ignition of cooking materials, including food, according to a 2012 study. “More than half of the losses resulting from these incidents involved fats, cooking oil, or related substances,” says the NFPA.

Ed Wolff, president of LeasingDesk Insurance, says grease fires are one of those red flags in the insurance industry this time of year. The combustible substance heated on stoves and in ovens is directly and indirectly responsible for a number of apartment fires each year.

Stove-top fires are the most common, but grease and byproducts of solid-fuel fires can lurk as a hazard in some not so obvious spaces. Grease build-up in kitchen vents, and even creosote buildup in fireplaces can contribute to structure fires. Wolff says apartment operators should be aware of the potential for fires inside and outside the apartment – not just in the kitchen – during the holidays.

turkey fryer

Educate residents on deep frying turkeys if allowed in the community

One growing potential grease fire danger is from deep frying turkeys on Thanksgiving. Frying turkeys, which is typically done in a gas-fueled outdoor cooker, is becoming more and more popular. The cooking technique originated in the south and is a Cajun tradition. But with submerging the birds in three or four gallons of scalding hot oil comes the risk of grease fires and burns.

According to one insurance carrier, Texas has led the country in most grease- and cooking-related insurance claims on Thanksgiving Day for the last seven years. Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, South Carolina and Georgia followed close behind.

A number of safety tips are offered on various websites, but the NFPA discourages using outdoor gas-fueled turkey fryers, citing the possibility of “devastating burns, other injuries and the destruction of property.” Most incidents occur while oil is being heated, prior to adding the turkey, according to a 2003 Consumer Product Safety Commission report. The agency also reported in 1999 that 83 percent of frying fires began in the first 15 minutes of cooking.

Frying indoors is highly discouraged, but even outdoor cooking can be risky for apartments. Wolff says he hasn’t seen many claims for fires caused by deep frying turkeys but is aware that cooking usually goes on in breezeways and parking lots.

He urges extreme caution and suggests property owners should educate residents if frying turkeys is allowed.

Grease buildup in exhaust fans potentially dangerous

A hidden grease danger is in kitchen exhaust systems that pull cooking smoke and fumes out of the kitchen. Grease can be pulled into the vents, and over time, grease build-up may ignite and cause a structure fire if not cleaned.

Most exhaust-related grease fires in restaurants grab headlines, but they can happen in apartments too, says Wolff. While a number of commercially available fire suppression systems are available, one proactive defense is periodic cleaning of exhausts.

“It’s more pervasive in older units because it’s been a long-standing build up,” he said. “Maintenance needs to take precautions early to insure that they’re mitigating their risk. What happens is people forget that this is a potential issue. Out of sight, out of mind. You’ve got to takes steps now, if you don’t take steps now you run the risk of creating fire.”


Creosote in fireplaces can ignite if not periodically swept

Just like grease buildup in cooking exhaust systems, creosote buildup in chimneys also poses a fire hazard. When solid fuels like wood don’t burn completely, creosote is emitted and sticks to the insides of chimneys and flues. Over time, the oily and sticky substance can catch fire if the chimney or flue isn’t cleaned properly.

A 2012 NFPA report estimated 14,190 reported creosote fires, or 22 percent of all home heating fires, happen each year. They resulted in four civilian deaths, 11 civilian injuries and $35 million in direct property damage annually.

The Chimney Safety Institute of America says that open masonry fireplaces should be swept at 1/8″ of sooty buildup, and sooner if there is any glaze present in the system. CSIA also points to an NFPA recommendation that chimneys, fireplaces and vents should be inspected annually.

No matter the time of year, cleaning exhaust fans and fireplaces helps prevent fires in residences. Some precautions in home cooking are beneficial as well.

Wolff says apartment operators should be mindful that residents will take to their kitchens to prepare feasts and lounge in front of a living room fire during the holidays. A number of educational resources and fire prevention tips are available through the NFPA to be shared with residents.

“It’s about education and making people aware,” Wolff says.


Contributing Editor, Property Management Insider
President, Ballpark Impressions, LLC

author photo two

Tim Blackwell is a long-time publishing and printing executive in the Dallas/Fort Worth area who writes about the multifamily housing and transportation industries. He has contributed numerous articles to Property Management Insider, and worked as a newspaper reporter in the D/FW area. Blackwell is president of Ballpark Impressions, and publishes the Cowcatcher Magazine. He is a member of the Fort Worth Chapter/Society of Professional Journalists.

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